After having attended all the China Joy conventions over the years, China Joy 2013 felt very different. Of course, there were the usual booth girls, contests, shows and cosplay to be found but something fundamental has changed in the last year, reflecting changes in China’s online game industry.
The density of booths at China Joy 2013 was not as high as in previous years. This may have been a deliberate attempt by organisers to make the venue more comfortable for attendees, unlike the steamed sardine can of years past, packed with sweaty game fans vying for prizes and pictures of models.
There might be another reason for the lack of booths however. China Joy has shrunk both in terms of the number of large exhibitors as well as the marketing budget spent on booths. The usual giants of the domestic gaming industry-Netease, Perfect World, Giant and Tencent-were there, but Shanda was nowhere to be found. Usually, Shanda has the biggest blowout of booth models, swag and displays, but this year they didn’t seem to have even turned up.
The Chinese gaming industry has long been dominated by the small clique of companies which run the massively-multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) that attract millions of players to internet cafes all over China. Over the years however, MMORPG burnout-from the grind and investment in time and money of levelling up characters in these games-has become more common. Players have turned to lighter and more casual web and social games. Certain companies are also alleged to have been bribing internet cafe owners to pre-install their games while deleting those of non-bribing, smaller competitors.
However, as more people can afford their own gaming computers or gravitate towards web games that simply require a web browser, the stranglehold of the MMORPGs has long been broken. The advent of smart phones means that most people carry their own game machines with them each day. As its demands for time and money increase, the MMORPG looks more and more like an outdated entertainment format. The social aspect of chatting within games has been taken up on Weibo, WeChat and various other social networks. In 2013, games are not the only digital entertainment source for Chinese users. Videos, chatting and now shopping and dining have chipped away at the time and budget of many game players over the years.
This explains why at China Joy 2013 we see many previously unknown companies being the highlight of the show. Mobile companies comprise a big chunk of the exhibitors because they control the lion’s share of users in China today. These smaller companies will continue to grow at the expense of their older competitors, many of whom have had a hard time of the transition to social and mobile space in several years. The Chinese MMORPG industry is also facing a dearth of new concepts and themes after having made so many Journey to the West, Swordsman, and Warring Kingdoms games. At the end of the day, many of the games in China today are still just derivative copies of successful games in the west, Korea, and Japan. I predict that in a few years, most netizens will be spending more time on Taobao than Westward Journey #18.
With so many of the mobile and web companies being outside Shanghai, mainly Beijing, it begs the question whether China Joy should still remain in this city, the home of most of the old school domestic MMORPGs and console companies.
China Joy has become less about the games being released, and more about the spectacle: the girls, and the prizes being given out. It has been like this for several years but this year marks a fundamental shift in the companies and products that are being shown.
Frank Yu is CEO and co-founder of Kwestr, and Beijing curator at Startup Digest. He has two decades of experience in the tech and media industry and has previously written for TechCrunch, SCMP, and Gamasutra.
[Image credit: Frank Yu]